One of the first female singers to make a name for herself in the American pantheon of jazz, Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) managed to capture the subtleties of the era's African American blues and ragtime music. Bailey early on developed her own unique way to underline the meaning of the words she sang. She performed with some of the finest musicians of the swing era—including Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, and Red Norvo, her husband for most of the 1930s. Plagued by health problems for much of her life, she died when she was only 44 years old in 1951.
Many jazz lovers had a hard time reconciling Bailey's high, dulcet tones with her rather corpulent body. During the hey-days of the Swing Era, she and Norvo, her husband at the time, were dubbed "Mr. and Mrs. Swing." Influenced by the stylings of Ethel Waters, Connie Boswell, and Bessie Smith, she developed a uniquely soft yet swinging delivery that delighted nightclub audiences wherever she appeared throughout the United States. Although she is perhaps best remembered for her work in jazz, Bailey enjoyed a good deal of success in popular music as well. Although she appeared with some of the most successful bands of the Swing Era, she ended her career as a solo performer, drawing thousands of appreciative fans to her appearances at some of New York City's most popular jazz clubs.
Began Performing at an Early Age
Bailey was born Mildred Rinker on February 27, 1907, in Tekoa, a small town in eastern Washington state, close to the border with Idaho. While she was still quite young, Bailey moved with her mother and three brothers to nearby Spokane. Her mother, who was part Native American, schooled Bailey and her brothers in Native American traditions, and the family often visited relatives on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in nearby Idaho. Bailey learned music from her mother and began performing at an early age, playing the piano and singing in movie theaters in the early 1920s. Her interest in jazz was shared by older brother Al and a neighborhood friend, Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby. In writing the liner notes for one of her early albums, Crosby recalled, as quoted in Dictionary of American Biography: "Mildred Bailey gave me my start. She took off Hollywood for newer and broader fields, and a year or so later, Al and I followed her there. She introduced us to Marco [Wolff], at that time a very big theatrical producer, and we were on our way—with a lot of her material, I might add. She was mucha mujer, with a heart as big as Yankee Stadium."
By the mid-1920s, Bailey, who had married and divorced at an early age, retaining nothing of her first husband but his last name, was headlining at a club in Hollywood, performing a mixture of pop, vaudeville standards, and early jazz tunes. In quick succession she worked as a "song demonstrator," toured with the dance revue of Fanchon and Marco Wolff, and was a solo vocalist on Los Angeles radio station KMTR. Bailey's first big break came when she sent a demo record to popular bandleader Paul Whiteman. The bandleader had already hired Crosby and Bailey's older brother, Al Rinker, to appear with his band as the "Rhythm Boys." Impressed with Bailey's vocal stylings, Whiteman hired her to sing with his band, making her one of the first female singers to be featured with a major dance orchestra. In 1932 Bailey gained added fame when she recorded Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair," written especially for her. It became Bailey's signature song and earned her the moniker "The Rockin' Chair Lady."
Bailey developed a relationship with jazz xylophonist Red Norvo (Kenneth Norville) not long after he joined the Whiteman band in 1931. Shortly thereafter the couple was married. Not long after they were wed, Norvo left Whiteman to start his own band and Bailey went off on her own to build a career for herself as a radio vocalist. Norvo's band soon ran into trouble and appeared likely to break up. Bailey offered to join the group as vocalist in an effort to prevent disbandment. Some of the finest work of Bailey's career came from her collaboration with Norvo. Working together, the couple came to be known as "Mr. and Mrs. Rhythm." One of the most memorable of their collaborations was on the album Smoke Dreams.
In a review of Smoke Dreams (reissued by Definitive Records in 1999) that appears on the Songbirds web site, Jeff Austin wrote: "The Red Norvo Orchestra with Mildred Bailey had an unmistakable sound, with Bailey's feather-light vocals paralleled by the delicacy and grace of Norvo's xylophone, all couched in light, ever-swinging arrangements by the likes of Eddie Sauter. The title track, 'Smoke Dreams,' epitomizes what made Bailey/Norvo different than anyone else. Legend very credibly has it that, subsequent to Sauter's being the object of a Bailey rage, he fashioned for her an arrangement that would be any other singer's worst nightmare, riddled with ear-bending dissonance that might have permanently traumatized most other lady band singers. Undaunted, Bailey sails serenely through the din—and one is left wondering what other band (save, perhaps, for Stan Kenton ten years later) might have attempted a chart so avant-garde."
Bailey and Norvo Divorced
Other songs closely identified with Bailey during her years with Norvo's band include "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Weekend of a Private Secretary." Although they remained close friends, Bailey and Norvo realized by the end of the 1930s that their marriage was no longer working and divorced. They continued to work together from time to time, however. About 1940, economic pressures forced Norvo to reduce the size of his group, freeing Bailey to once again pursue her solo career. Through the first half of the 1940s she was backed on her recordings by some of the era's finest musicians, including Johnny Hodges, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Having performed with scores of African American musicians throughout her career, Bailey took an extremely enlightened view of race relations and at one point in her career had sung at a benefit in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom to aid the Scottsboro Boys.
Famed record producer John Hammond worked with Bailey on a number of her recordings in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In his liner notes for the three-LP retrospective album, Mildred Bailey: Her Greatest Performances (1962), which are discussed on the Songbirds Web site, Hammond asserted: "Mildred was resentful that she was not a commercial success, and there was always a battle between us over the kind of accompaniment she should have on records." Taking sharp issue with Hammond's observations is reviewer Austin. In his review of Bailey's All of Me (reissued by Definitive in 1999), Austin wrote: "This idea has been recycled time and again in biographical material about Bailey. Not only is it probably untrue, it casts her in a slightly pathetic light. Hammond's remark is particularly strange when one considers that commercial success in terms of hit records had infinitely less to do with accompaniment than with material. Any singer wanting to hit it big on jukeboxes would not have recorded such a wealth of unusual songs by Willard Robison… . More importantly, documentary evidence exists in interviews about Bailey with Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer (both of whom knew a great deal about commercialism), and her brother Al, that Bailey resolutely wouldn't compromise on material, and simply wasn't interested in doing what it took to make herself a commercial entity. According to Crosby, she frankly didn't want to work all that hard."
Whatever the reasons may have been, superstardom eluded Bailey. The singer blamed her plumpness for her lack of commercial success, while others suggested that it was really Bailey's temper and sharp tongue that were her undoing. There's plenty of evidence that Bailey felt especially bitter towards better-looking female vocalists, many of whom she felt lacked her talent. Throughout her life, Bailey blamed her obesity on a glandular condition, although many of her friends attributed it instead to her great love of food.
Bailey continued to perform and record until the mid-1940s. She appeared on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan radio program and was given her own radio program for a brief period in the mid-1940s. However, mounting health problems forced her to step away from her career by mid-decade. A longtime diabetic, Bailey also suffered from a heart condition and hardening of the arteries. With her two pet dachshunds, she retired to a farm in upstate New York, returning to the New York City club circuit now and again for a solo engagement. She was a particular favorite at the Café Society. Bailey got some financial help from composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who arranged to split her medical bills with Frank Sinatra and longtime friend Bing Crosby. Finally, by the early 1950s, Bailey's health had deteriorated to such an extent that she was forced to give up performing altogether. On December 12, 1951, Bailey died penniless at Poughkeepsie Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Enjoyed Resurgence in Popularity
A unique talent in almost every respect, Bailey will long be remembered as one of the great jazz stylists of her time. Although her singing—swinging, straightforward, and delivered with superb diction—was very much of her time, it remains fresh and sparkling. Perhaps Bailey's career was best summed up by jazz musician Loren Schoenberg in his review of The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey (released by Mosaic on CD in 2002) for National Public Radio's (NPR's) Jazz Reviews. Schoenberg wrote: "Mildred Bailey was one of the greatest jazz singers in the Swing Era. Yet today her name is unknown, largely because the great majority of recordings have been out of print for decades. Like Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey could transform the most hackneyed Tin Pan Alley trite into something beautiful and, at times, profound." Of Bailey's rendition of the 1938 tune, "I Can't Face the Music," Schoenberg wrote that "the phrasing is worthy of Maria Callas or of Armstrong. However, Bailey had something that Armstrong never had—a genius for an arranger. Eddie Sauter was one of the most original arranger/composers to emerge … in the 1930s."
Late in the 20th century and in the early years of the new millennium, Bailey's work enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a number of her recordings of the 1930s and 1940s were reissued on compact disc. She received another posthumous honor in September 1994 when the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp bearing her image as part of its Pop, Jazz, and Blues Legends series. Bailey's vocal style has often been likened to that of jazz great Billie Holiday, whom Bailey, husband Red Norvo, and record producer John Hammond discovered singing in a small club in New York City. Bailey's influence is also seen in the work of Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett. Sadly, Bailey's low self-esteem, body image problems, and failing health prematurely crippled her career and kept her from developing into the superstar she so richly deserved to be.
Almanac of Famous People, 6th ed., Gale Research, 1998.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951-1955, American Council of Learned Societies, 1977.
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